By Rhea St. Julien
“Look! It’s a poodle!” The backwards-capped, Ray-Ban–wearing bro called out from behind my daughter and I as we walked down Valencia Street.
Whipping around, my voice shaking with sudden rage, I said, “Did you just call my daughter a poodle?!” My three-year-old skipped along, her Afro bouncing with her, blissfully unaware that I had started an altercation with a stranger. Maybe she’s used to her mama going off on people by now.
“No, Lady, I was pointing out a real poodle in a window.” I looked around. I didn’t see any goddamned poodle. Nevertheless, I was instantly abashed, sure that after a day of fielding micro-aggressions I had jumped the gun by accusing this dude of an unintentionally racist remark.
I weakly told him to watch what he said; it was not my proudest parenting moment. In my defense, I’m new at this.
I’m new at responding to the frequent, subtle reminders people give our interracial family that we are “different”
I’m not necessarily new to parenting – I’ve been at that for three and half years now, which is long enough to have down my “mama stare” so that my daughter knows when I absolutely mean it. And I’m past that new-parent panic that sends you running at the first whimper your kid makes. But I’m new at responding to the frequent, subtle reminders people give our interracial family that we are “different” – like when they assume my husband and I are separate parties at a restaurant, or when they make comments about my daughter’s appearance that are thinly-veiled attempts at finding out “what” she is.
These little offhand comments by strangers began to build until I felt like I was colluding with them by not responding, by making the interaction less awkward, by smiling wanly and letting people know, “It’s OK, you’re white and don’t know what to say, I understand, I’m white too.” I was handing out free passes right and left, because race is a hard thing to talk about, and I wanted to smooth the way for further dialogue.
But the conversations never came. As soon as people’s curiosity about my daughter’s Haitian-Italian-Irish ethnic background was sated, and their exclamations had been made about how rare it was that she ended up with a blonde, Chantilly-lace looking Afro when my husband and I both have black hair, they never want to know anything more. Not one of these casual interrogations ever grew into a real conversation about what it’s like to raise a black child in an increasingly homogenous community. And yes, I meant black, because as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie points out in Americanah, in the United States race is based on your appearance, not your ethnic makeup. My daughter looks black, so she will always be treated as such, no matter how that treatment shifts in our culture.
Perhaps you’re thinking, “What are you talking about, Ma? Everyone and their brother is in an interracial relationship in San Francisco these days.” It’s true; part of the reason my husband and I moved here a decade ago from Philadelphia is because of the greater tolerance for all different kinds of relationships this city holds. But tolerance is not depth. I’m finding, as a parent in a multiethnic family, that it is not enough. There’s something about the perceived notion of San Francisco as a tolerant place that prevents people from digging into the issues of being a truly diverse community. We want to be “post-racial,” but the legacy of slavery is alive and kicking. Wishing it away does not make it disappear. I started to realize that my hopes for a deeper dialogue about race were not going to materialize until I let these encounters get awkward, and found my way through that awkwardness in conversation with other people.
I had the chance to do just that at a birthday party recently, which I attended with my husband, who happened to be the only black person there. We got a bit tipsy (with our kid in the next room finally asleep), so we threw out our unwritten rule to never play politically incorrect card games with folks we don’t know well. Cards Against Humanity is meant to be audacious and offensive, but one dude felt the need to make it personal. He pulled the Token Black Person card, stared knowingly at my husband, and when his rudeness was ignored, tried to hand the card to my husband. We walked home in silence that night, heavy with the knowledge that 90% of the black families we are friends with had moved out of San Francisco, and more and more of our parties are going to be like this, with our family members as the only black folks there. The fact that there was someone ignorant enough to point that out like it's some kind of joke, rather than a deeply complicated issue with personal ramifications, hung between us, making our tongues too thick to speak.
Gratefully, I was able to talk to the host of the party the next day. I nervously explained how uncomfortable this incident made us feel, and she never once intimated that we were being “oversensitive.” Together, she and I worked through our white-person shame over the fact that this had happened. She didn’t make excuses for her friend, and she seriously listened to my request not to have to hang out with that guy again. It was a good lesson for me – I can’t control who I am around all the time, but I can pick my friends as people willing to have those deeper discussions on race and privilege.
That conversation went well, but it was within the context of an established friendship, and it was done indirectly, and after the fact. What do I do with the nearly constant deluge of strangers who are incredulous at my daughter’s looks and how she fits into our family? I often hear, “Is it normal for her to have that hair?” The girl basically won the genetic lottery, but it’s not exactly an abnormal condition. It’s not a cause for alarm; she’s just cute.
And yes, I am aware that we don’t look too much alike at first glance, I don’t need that pointed out to me by a passerby. The fact that you thought I was the nanny should be a source of embarrassment to you, not something you offer to me like a compliment: “Ha! I thought you were paid to do this! Because you have different skin colors!” Yes, I get that, Captain Observant. Don’t make a big deal.
Stop trying to touch her hair, to find out if I “got a baby daddy,” or if I’m going to get her into modeling.
After three years of holding everyone’s curiosity, I’m just tired of it. You’ll get to know everything you need to know about our family if you actually form a relationship with us, or even conduct a pleasant passing conversation about something other than how we look. Please let my daughter know you are interested in her for some reason other than to objectify or exoticize her existence. If you’re not into getting deep, that’s fine too, just stop trying to touch her hair, to find out if I “got a baby daddy,” or if I’m going to get her into modeling. And don’t fucking call her a poodle.
There are so many things I won’t fully understand, as my daughter grows into her racial identity, and in those moments when she says, “You’ve never had this happen to you specifically, Mom. You’re white.” I’ll have to say, “You’re right.” I hope I can also say, “But I can listen. And I’ve always tried.” It is my job to try. It is my task, as the mom of a black child, to call out racial bullshit when it occurs so she doesn’t have to sit with that sinking feeling of “Did that just happen? Am I crazy?” I have to dive right into the awkward conversations about race, because as a white person, I can choose not to and she can’t. It’s part of my privilege that if I choose to ignore racism or wish it away, I can live my life that way, but she cannot. So, I will show up for her, no matter how uncomfortable it gets.
Roll with me, fellow city-dwellers, when I bring up the "r" word. We all, myself included, need to get better at talking about race. If I call you out on something unintentionally racist you have said to my family, I promise to use a sense of humor whenever I can, to be gracious and kind, but I believe it will still get awkward. What I'm asking is that you share the awkwardness with us, since we leave these intrusive question situations feeling less human, every time. My daughter is not a curiosity, she's a person.
I’ll never know if there was actually a poodle in that window, or if that Valencia Street dude really called my daughter a dog. But I owe it to her to make it awkward, and to ask.